Interview: First Officer Richard Irwin Cole





Interview: First Officer Richard Irwin Cole

Date: October 25, 2009

Location: Northwest Airlines Training Center

Time: 1000  

Present were: David Tew, Malcolm Brenner, David Lawrence- National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB); T.R. Proven –FAA; Pete Sahler – Northwest Airlines; Dan Coogan – ALPA, Christopher M. Brown - ALPA Representative.  

During the interview, F/O Cole stated the following information:  

He was 54 years old. His date of hire with Northwest Airlines (NWA) was January 3, 1997. He began flying with the civil air patrol at age 14 in a Piper Cub airplane. He flew in the ROTC at the University of Puget Sound. He went into the U.S. Air Force in 1980 and flew F-111s for about three years. He was an instructor at Mountain Home AFB training base. Neck problems caused him to leave the Air Force. His neck problem was that he had a disectomy which removed part of a disk to relieve pressure on a pinched nerve. He had not had any neck problem since. He did not receive a military disability. He flew for Pan Am from 1989 till 1991 where he was a F/O on the B-727. He worked for Express One International from 1991 to 1996 and was an S/O, F/O and Captain on the B-727. In 1997, he started at NWA as an F/E on the B-727 for 3 years. He was an F/E on the DC-10 for 3 years and F/O on the Airbus A-320 for 6 years. He had about 11,000 total flight hours of which about 4,500 to 5,000 were on the Airbus A-320. He was never a civilian instructor or check airman. He had no failures during proficiency checks. He stated that he had no previous accidents, incidents or violations.  

His medical certificate required him to have glasses with him and he said he had his glasses on the incident flight. He stated that he had no medical problems during the previous six months and he was taking no medications. The local police gave them a breathalyzer test. He was drug tested by NWA after the flight [urine test and breathalyzer].  

F/O Cole stated that there had been no major changes in his health in the past year. He characterized his health as good. His hearing was good. He had a personal physician but had not visited him in two years. He did not take prescription medicine. He drank alcohol and his last use before the event was probably on Sunday drinking beer while watching football on television. He smoked tobacco, about 1 pack per day. His last use before the event: he perhaps smoked a cigarette outside about one hour before departure. He did not smoke in the airport or airplane. F/O Cole said not smoking for 3-4 hours was not a problem for him. He might get “jittery” if he had not smoked all day. Here were no major changes in his financial situation in the past year. He said he had no financial worry.  

The merger had initially improved pilot salary by 10%, but the NWA pilots had experienced a 40% pay cut earlier. He stated he was not in financial trouble. He did not experience any major changes in his personal situation during the past year. He lived at Salem Oregon. He had two children from his first marriage, a 14-year old daughter and 16-year old son, and relocated to Salem to be close to his children. He was currently in his second marriage, to a woman from Germany who also had a 14-year old daughter and 16-year old son. He was off the first of the month and at the end of the month and the three trips he had were compressed a bit more together. He had 2 full days and three nights off before the current trip.  


When he was not working, his typical sleep schedule was to go to bed between 2300-2400 and wake up about 0700. He generally slept straight through the night and felt rested with about seven hours sleep. When he was at home, he sometimes took naps in the afternoon, from 1300 to 1400 or from 1400 to 1500, if he did not receive sufficient sleep. This happened about half the time. He normally had no trouble falling and staying asleep. He has never sought medical assistance for sleep issues.  

The captain was personable, nice, and had a good attitude. He was from Alaska but lived in Seattle where First Officer Cole grew up. On the first day they discussed backgrounds and hit it off well. He seemed like a conscientious pilot. He was concerned about the proper things, and made sure everything was done. He was a very nice man. In the event, they allowed themselves to get distracted and got deeper and deeper into it.  

He was based at MSP. For commuting, he preferred to fly long trips—5 day sequences-- so he did not have to fly too many times back and forth between his home and his base. He usually commuted to his base on the day prior to beginning a trip and stayed in a hotel at his own expense. Two 5-day trips and a 4-day trip were a good monthly sequence. This month he had a good schedule: three 5-day trips with 2-days off between.  

On Saturday October 17, he completed his second trip sequence at MSP, caught the 1430 CDT flight to PDX, arrived at PDX, drove about one hour to his home at Salem and arrived there about 1800 PDT. He ate dinner with his family, watched football on television, and went to bed between 2300-2400.  

Asked about training on fatigue, he said that it was discussed at annual training but not in depth. They were not trained on how to recognize fatigue and deal with it. There was also discussion about distractions but not in depth, no human factors perspective. If you call in fatigued, the company will remove you from the trip with no questions asked. You are still paid for the trip. They will replace you and coordinate your schedule. They may return you to base. The policy is not to hold it against you, with the consideration that the company has legal liabilities if they were to force you to fly. He called in fatigued on his first trip ever about 12 years ago. The company was not very happy about it.  

There were no designated rest periods in the reserve schedule at that time. The crew was contacted at 1600 with an evening flight. He had been awake all day. They experienced a long maintenance delay at one of the enroute stops, arrived late at their next stop at 0300, and were scheduled to fly one more leg. All three flight crew members refused to fly the last leg due to fatigue. The company took them off the schedule but the local agents tried to pressure them to take the flight because the passengers had been waiting several hours. There were no ramifications of their calling in fatigued. He may have called in fatigued a second time but could not recall. He did not know specific names of other pilots who had called in fatigued or what their experiences might have been. After calling in fatigued, a person may get a couple of one day trips instead of the sequence they were assigned.

He did not mind staying at a hotel at MSP at his own expense. He stayed at several, although one local hotel gave pilots a good discount of $50. It had a good van service and breakfast.  

This month, his first trip had an identical schedule with an evening flight to SAN that allowed a same day commute. He was able to nap before the trip and it was uneventful. The middle trip began with an early departure so he arrived the day before.  

On Sunday October 18, he awoke after about 7-8 hours sleep. He used the computer and watched sports on television in the morning with his stepson. About 1600 PDT, the two children from his first marriage and other friends of his children came to visit and his children stayed over for the night. He spoke with them, ordered pizza for dinner about 1900 PDT, watched a movie with his wife, and went to sleep between 2300-2400 PDT.  

On Monday October 19, he awakened about 0530 PDT with an alarm clock to get the children ready for school and allow his wife to sleep late. About 0700 PDT, he drove all the children to school [they all attended the same high school]. The quality of his overnight sleep was limited and he was tired all day Monday, and probably took a nap in the afternoon. He made preparations for his upcoming trip [paying bills, read letters and prepared his clothes], chauffeured his children home, watched Monday night football, and went to bed at 2300 to 2330 PDT. He did not conduct company business over the weekend other than perhaps reading messages.  

On Tuesday October 20, he awoke about 0330 PDT. His sleep was good but too short and he felt tired. He showered, dressed, drank coffee, and drove to the airport where he caught the 0630 PDT flight that arrived at MSP at noon. He slept on the airplane for about two hours, probably in and out of sleep but mostly asleep. Sleep quality on airplanes is not 100% but is restful. He was less tired when he arrived than when he departed and planned to take a nap in the reclining chairs available to pilots. There were several rooms available to pilots at MSP to rest. There was a quiet room with complete darkness and multiple recliner chairs. The recliner chairs lay almost flat and there were blankets and pillows. He normally did not use the quiet room because there were generally other crews asleep there, it was very dark, and one stumbled around and heard other alarm clocks.  

There was the main crew room with some chairs but it was noisy and there were no pillows. Finally, there were smaller side rooms where the pilot could close the door, sleep individually, and set an alarm without disturbing others. He liked these and they were available most of the time. However, he was unable to nap at MSP on Tuesday October 20 because of vacation issues. He was on the computer and telephone in the crew room computer area for about two hours. He was unable to access his e-crew account. He ate an early dinner at a Chinese restaurant at the airport consisting of General Tao’s chicken. He was scheduled for a 1720 flight to SAN and checked in at noon. The flight was uneventful. He met the captain (“Tim”) at the airplane. They departed on time. The flight was a little bumpy, maybe moderate turbulence, and the arrival was uneventful. They arrived at the layover hotel about 2000-2030 PDT and he went to his room. He was tired, did not eat, and went to bed at 2230-2300 PDT. The captain met his wife who had flown down from SEA for the layover.  

On Wednesday, October 21, he awoke about 0600-0630 PDT. The quality of his sleep was good and he woke up rested and wide awake. He received about seven hours sleep. He made coffee and went on the computer to determine why he was off the computer system. About 1000 PDT, he went for a walk along the docks. He ate lunch around 1100 PDT at a restaurant across the street from the hotel, the meal consisted of fish and chips and soda. He returned to the hotel to prepare for meeting at the 1300 van to the airport. The trip to the airport took about 5-10 minutes. At the airport, he purchased a small salad to eat on the airplane since they normally are not provided food. He ate it at the top of climb. He also ate some of the crew meal that became available, consisting of meat and potatoes with lemon pie. He normally drinks 4-5 cups of coffee per day. He drank 1-2 cups when he awoke and 1 cup on the airplane.  

There had been many personnel changes within the company and everything was in a state of flux which was causing problems for everyone. Everything was changing causing a headache. He said that some procedures were just interim. New checklists may only be good for a few weeks. The F/O said that at the start of the trip, he found out he did not get the vacation time that he wanted. He had been locked out of the Delta computer system and had been on the phone for hours trying to correct that. The phone conversation occurred before the trip started. The bid had closed so he did not get what he wanted. He said their vacation slot was different from Delta’s. The NWA pilots slot was in the first three months. Everybody was encountering problems.  

The company was trying to do the best they could but everything was changing. The NWA pilots were having the most changes. F/O Cole said he told the captain of his frustration at being locked out of a vacation bid. The F/O said he was going to have to take whatever they gave him. There are lots of changes - manuals, checklists, bidding, etc. Most of the changes were on the Northwest side because Delta was the acquiring airline. F/O Cole said there was no excuse for not monitoring the aircraft. He said he had to take blame. He said they had tunnel vision and were so “focused”.

The incident occurred on the second day and second flight of his sequence. The first day and first flight of the sequence was from MSP to SAN. It was preplanned for the captain to fly the first two flight legs. The F/As arrived on the airplane when it flew into SAN and the airplane was about 20 minutes late arriving into SAN.  

There was a delay of about 20 minutes in getting a departure slot from SAN. The airplane was on autopilot during the climb and there were no problems during climb. They used headsets until they reached cruise altitude then removed their headsets. Climbing out of 400 feet and in managed mode, he said you normally would put the autopilot on. F/O Cole said he usually flew manually until the airplane was cleaned up. He would disconnect the autopilot at about 1,000 feet when landing.  

When asked if there were any direct clearances, he said they followed the flight plan. He reported there was a little turbulence at 35,000. They elected to climb to 37,000. He recalled the optimum and maximum altitude was 37,000. Captain noted the airplane was “just not climbing”. They were in open climb mode. At first, the climb rate was about 100 feet per minute. Later the climb rate increased to about 300 feet per minute. He did not recall any conflict in call signs with other aircraft. There was no congestion on the radio frequency. The amount of traffic was “no more than usual”. The dome light was on bright Number 1 radio head was on the ATC frequency with the previous frequency in the inactive window. Number 2 radio was set on 121.5 and the company frequency was in the inactive window. He did not recall sending any company position reports. He filled out the flight plan in accordance with company procedures. He did not know what happened to the flight plan after the flight. He assumed it went into the trash. He said the toggle mike switch on the ACP affects speaker volume when toggled between hot mike and cold mike. In hot mike, the speaker volume goes down.  

The last time he talked to Denver Center was when they were just East of Pueblo, CO which was shortly before they had a meal. He said that their meal was brought to the cockpit about 2 hours into the flight. He said that the captain ate his meal first. The F/O said he had a small salad earlier. He said the F/As did not normally come to the cockpit during flight. He said that they were only required to talk to the flight attendants before takeoff to determine if they were ready for takeoff. He was pretty sure that was about the last time that he had radio contact with Denver center. He said the Denver center was a large sector and he didn’t expect to hear another call for 15-20 minutes. When asked if it was unusual not to hear from ATC for an hour, he replied “absolutely”.  

They were about one hour into the flight, maybe over Arizona, when the captain and he discussed the crew monthly bidding. One week earlier, they had found out the results of the first “merged” bid. The captain was fairly upset that he did not get the schedule for November that he wanted. He had been a senior pilot at NWA. The new system gave him different trips which caused him to have to come to work an extra day earlier. The captain did not get the trips that he wanted. F/O Cole said he got the trips he wanted on the bid. The new procedure for bidding was different from what they were used to at NWA. At Northwest they had gotten a paper schedule of trips. With the merger, they had to submit a request on the computer to bid for trips. They had a discussion of the bid. The captain was disturbed that he was going to lose about three days because he would have to come to work a day early for each trip. They discussed what the captain had done wrong in bidding. The captain was frustrated with his bid. The captain realized that he had made an error in bidding. He said it was a very complicated bid system.  

NWA had held clinics to help crewmembers on the bidding system. Some of the clinic instructors were often barely used to the system themselves. There were two editing programs to use when bidding. One program worked on a remote laptop. One editing program worked on a company computer. The F/O said he never thought he could be so distracted for so long. The captain had his computer out and his bidding information was stored on his computer. As an instructor, First Officer Cole was happy to assist when the captain indicated he needed help. It began as a light conversation but the captain pulled his computer out and it became involved. His tray table was folded halfway. He said this was more stable than full open. The focus of the conversation became more and more on the bid issues. The F/O said he showed the captain how to go through the bidding procedure.  

He said that the captain brought out his computer when they were over Eastern Colorado. The captain put his laptop on the desk. When asked if the computer being on the desk would block the pilot displays, he responded “yes”. The captain’s computer was turned so that the F/O could see the screen. The F/O said he later got out his own computer and showed the captain how he had structured his bid. They were still hearing radio calls and communications but never recognized that they were being called. There was chatter on the radio the whole time. The radios were set at normal volume for the regular radios, a little lower for 121.5 to avoid nuisance transmissions. They both monitored Denver center and 121.5 during this flight. The cockpit lighting was set on the bright setting. The F/O said both computers were open until they were contacted by the F/A, who “rang” them about five minutes before the scheduled arrival. He said the Lead F/A Bonnie asked when we were getting in.  

F/O Cole said they realized they were over MSP and had missed their descent point. It was dark outside the airplane. F/O Cole contacted ATC although he did not recall what frequency he used to contact the controller. The F/O said “someone” [he did not know who] gave them the correct radio frequency. He thought he might have made contact initially on frequency 121.5. When he contacted ATC, he did not have to adjust the volume. ATC asked them for verification and asked for our altitude and position. They did not ask for an ident. Within a minute, they gave us a turn of about 20-30 degrees. The F/O said he initially thought it was a turn back to MSP. He later read it was an identifying turn.ATC asked for their fuel state but did not initially ask why they passed MSP. Later ATC asked “nature of problem” as they were being vectored. We said “crew distraction”.  

The captain said his MCDU was blank – nothing was on the screen. When they were cleared back to MSP, the F/O programmed an arrival and then ATC changed the arrival. ATC gave them a heading and vectored them to runway 35. He had to put MSP into the MCDU again as the destination so he could program the arrival. On the mode display, “airports” was selected and this allowed them to see Eau Claire airport.  

He stated that with an ACARS message receipt, normal messages do not print out – only weight data printed automatically. There was no aural tone associated with an ACARS message. On the right side of the lower screen of the ECAM, you would get an indication of a company message or an ACARS message. A message would not automatically show up on the screen, you had to “pull it up”. After they were back in radio contact, the F/O said he went to “pull up” ATIS info and noticed there were several messages on the lower screen. All he saw were the headings of the messages which said “contact ATC” or “ATC is looking for you”. The F/O said he inadvertently pushed the “delete all” button which erased all the messages. Company procedures for NORAD were to try the ACARS and ask someone in the area to try and make contact. The F/O did not know if the company did these things.

The captain told the F/A that we would be about 20 minutes late. He later told FA Bonnie what had happened. Neither pilot napped during the event trip.  

Only about five A-320 aircraft had SELCAL capability – they were the extended range over water airplanes. He said that the incident airplane did not have SECAL. Their fuel when they landed was about 10,000 lbs. Pilots were paid when they were off for fatigue. The only regular communication with the F/As was when they confirmed the F/As were ready for takeoff. They would normally give the F/As a double chime signal when they were leaving 10,000 feet or starting below 10,000 feet. For a bathroom break, they would call a F/A so they could prepare for it. The Lead F/A called a F/A from the back of the plane and a cart from the galley was placed across the aisle. A codeword was given. The pilots would check that the right people were in place. A F/A would go into the cockpit when a pilot exited. When the bathroom break was over, the F/A would look thru the viewer, the pilot would enter the cockpit and the F/A would exit. He did not recall when the food trays were removed.  

Bid results came out as a list of everyone and the trips and dates they each had. On the trip system now he could pull up his line when he opened the program as it automatically downloaded results. The captain said he had gotten three early starting trips and would have to come to MSP a day earlier for each trip.  

He thought at least three ACARS messages had been sent to them from the company. Radio duties were; On ground, F/O talks to ATC, Captain talked to pushback crews, On runway, NFP talked, Inflight, NFP operated radios – although other pilot talked while you ate.  

Multi function control and display unit (MCDU) inputs were done by FP. Both pilots acknowledged inputs. The captain programmed the FMS for the flight to MSP. This was normally done by the FP and checked by the NFP. The NFP performed the cockpit preflight. FMS was programmed for the Sketr arrival but was not programmed for a runway. The autopilot will step from point to point on the programmed flight plan until reaching a discontinuity, at which point the airplane would go to a heading mode and the current heading but there would be no aural chimes. The indicator light for heading was green. When they were over MSP, the weather below was overcast and they did not see the city lights. They did not see MSP on the PD but did see the Eau Claire airport. When asked what his position was, he referenced the distance and radial from Eau Claire. They may not have flown directly over MSP.  

They both had 121.5 frequency on the #2 radio. F/O Cole did not hear anyone on the frequency after the F/A called. He broadcast on the frequency and someone gave him a frequency to call.  

The new bidding system was nothing like their old bidding system. You needed a computer to bid or see what you got. As a commuter, he did not have the “luxury” of attending classes. The last couple of months, there had been a desk with knowledgeable people to help with problems. The captain was not complaining of a problem with his bid due to any financial concern. He was concerned with a loss of days at home. He stated that the bidding system was complicated and frustrating. The meals they received were left over from the first class service. He said there were no procedures to check the SELCAL.  

With regards to the Northwest crew room, he said there were a lot of new computer areas they were using:  

Got NWA company emails on NWA site

Check flights on the Delta system

To list on a flight, they needed to go to one of three sites depending on which computer you were using  


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